Read-through of “Topdog/Underdog” complex, compelling

This past week, a crowd gathered in the Wright theatre to watch a dynamic reading of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer Prize winning “Topdog/Underdog”. The read-through was one of three theatre performances at the 7th annual African American Arts Festival, co-sponsered by Spotlight UB and the Diversity and Culture office. Kimberly Lynne, who is teaching Playwriting at UB for the first time this semester, put together the reading.

Topdog/Underdog follows two African American brothers, played by J Hargrove and Brandan Tate, through a few pivotal weeks of their lives. Through their conversations about the past and present, the play explores the unique and perhaps insurmountable obstacles that they face as black men with troubled pasts.

As Topdog/Underdog was a read through, the production was minimal, bringing in only the most essential elements. The two actors spent much of their time sitting on stools and working with invisible props and modest costumes. Kerrin Smith, a current MFA student, read the stage directions so that the audience could follow the narrative.

Despite the simplicity of the read-through, the gravity of the original work was still present. Building on the undeniable quality of the script, Hargrove and Tate brought the play to life. From their very first interaction, the chemistry between the two was raw and believable. Their brother’s relationship, in all its fierce loyalty and competition, had humor and tragedy that easily captured my attention.

It was this complexity, found in the characters, plot and themes of the play, which led Lynne to set up the reading in the first place. The Playwriting course relies on reading plays and using them as examples.

“I’m not happy with current playwriting textbooks,” Lynne explained. “So I use good script examples to discuss all the various elements of the play. “Topdog” is a great example of perfect protagonist/antagonist orchestration, natural dialogue, plot structure and character arc matching plot arc, and pacing.”

By the end of the reading of the play, hearing it read by such talented actors greatly deepened my experience of Parks’ work. I have little doubt that the Playwriting class, and those students or community members who also attended, felt the same.

Spotlight’s next production is “Purgatory”, a short and terrifying play by William Butler Yeats on Thursday, March 26 at 12:30 and 5:30 for Lynne’s Irish Culture and Steve Matanle’s Irish Literature courses.

SavorUB serves students professional connections over dinner

The SavorUB program takes the idea of the alumni mentor to a new place: a midtown area restaurant. The concept is to pair a current student—who has applied through the UB website – with an alum from their prospective field. The pair then meets to discuss professional goals over a meal in an area restaurant. Past venues have included Sammy’s Trattoria, Owl Bar, City Café, Brewer’s Art and Two Boots. Following the meal, the student and alum often continue to meet up or exchange ideas.

A SavorUB meeting will give students both the immediate skills and a lasting connection for the future. Photo courtesy of Extravigator.com
A SavorUB meeting will give students both the immediate skills and a lasting connection for the future. Photo courtesy of Extravigator.com

SavorUB has been running since Sept. 2011, when it was established after a similar model at Dartmouth College. Sabrina Viscomi, the Assistant Director of Student and Young Alumni Programs, contends that a SavorUB meeting will give students both the immediate skills and a lasting connection for the future.

From that first meeting, the student will be learning. The simple act of sitting down to a lunch or dinner meeting, Viscomi argues, is incredibly important.

“SavorUB allows students to practice the skills we often learn about it textbooks, but cannot practice in the classroom,” Viscomi said. “For example: how should students behave if their interview takes place over lunch?”

In this way, the student has a chance to practice the careful balancing act of a professional encounter in the casual atmosphere of a meal meeting. And of course, much can be gained from the conversation during that single meal, in which alumni can share their experience transitioning from UB student to professional.

“I think the program also helps the students get answers from the best possible sources of information,” Viscomi said. “Who better to learn from than those who know exactly what it’s like to be in your shoes?” Ideally, of course, the meal results in a longer mentorship between the alum and the student. There are many success stories from SavorUB’s three-year history. While some students shadowed their mentors in the workplace, others fostered connections that helped them land a job or internship. Alumni have also helped graduate students get into doctoral programs.

In the end, the SavorUB program is about making connections. The experience is valuable whether the student gains a job, a professional contact or simply new insights for their future.

Interested in signing up? Check out SavorUB’s page at: www.ubalt.edu/alumni/volunteer-opportunities/savorub.cfm

 

Literary journal Skelter to showcase writing from UB’s community

The University of Baltimore has a brand new literary journal set to be published this spring. Skelter, which will consist of work exclusively from the UB community, will be compiled and edited by students in WRIT 401: Publication and Performance.

At this point, a number of Post readers are probably feeling a little confused. Skelter, though similar in name, is not to be confused with the older, more established Welter. This past fall, Welter was passed to graduate student hands. As a result, the undergraduate class was left without a publication. That’s when Skelter was born, and it was decided it would publish writing from the UB community.

Kath Sargent, the freshly elected Editor-in-Chief for this brand new publication, sees Welter as having a broader, more nebulous literary focus, since they accept pieces from all over the world. It’s also true that every year Welter is completely recreated, loosely connected by the ethos of a syllabus and by the few submissions that come from UB.

Sargent sees Skelter, though still literary, as more focused. Though this makes the prospect of getting submissions more challenging, it makes for a journal that will likely have a much more connected identity from year to year. It will echo the UB community.

Skelter is, like Welter, a celebration of literature,” Sargent explained. “But Skelter will focus on writing from a dynamic thriving community of persons.” And indeed, the focus is not set solely on the student body; there is hope that submissions will come from all corners of the campus, not just the academic ones.

“We are reaching out,” Sargent said, “to alumni, administrative staff, the UB police, outdoor and indoor environmental staff, plant operations, and faculty, as well as our fellow students.”

As a Teaching Assistant for the class, I have been able to witness the students’ evolving attitude toward Skelter. When the switch from Welter to Skelter was announced in the first class of the semester, the news was not entirely welcomed. I admit that, as a student from MFA who had purloined Welter, I felt somehow responsible for the students’s disappointment. But, the students’s negative feelings did not last long. By the time editorial elections happened in mid-February, the energy and excitement in the room was palpable. Each student who ran had passion and determination to define Skelter’s first issue as something to be remembered. Sargent acknowledged the challenge that lies ahead: creating an identity for a newborn journal in mere months. “The journal will be defined and executed almost simultaneously,” she said.

There is no doubt that the student staff is ready to make a beautifully innovative journal in the coming weeks.

LitMore, growing Literary Arts Center, moves to Hampden

Calling itself “Baltimore’s Center for the Literary Arts,” LitMore is host to a range of events and activities, from daylong writing retreats to writing workshops. At the start of January, LitMore moved from Mt. Washington to Hampden.

LitMore moved from its previous home in Mt. Washington to the Schwing Building in Hampden.
LitMore moved from its previous home in Mt. Washington to the Schwing Building in Hampden.

They moved to the Schwing building, an old car dealership on the 3300 block of Keswick Ave. Make Studio, an organization that provides arts programming to individuals with disabilities, will be using a much of the building. The entire ground floor will be a gallery space for students’ artwork, and the second-floor rooms at the front of the building will be studios.

Julie Fisher, LitMore’s founder, was completely positive about the prospect of sharing the space.

“It’s pretty perfect for us,” Fisher said. “They are here nine to five, and we use the space primarily on evenings and weekends.”

Make Studio, a community arts organization, occupies the ground floor of the Schwing Building.
Make Studio, a community arts organization, occupies the ground floor of the Schwing Building.

The Schwing building was, until last month, beautifully conspicuous and empty. It’s designed to grab attention: two stories, huge display windows around the whole first f loor, and round Art Deco corners. And, located just half a block south of the lights of 34th Street, it’s close to the Avenue but not too close. It’s accessible to the rest of the city, with ample parking 11 months of the year.

In the summer of 2013, her son’s school was getting ready to move into St John’s Church in Mt Washington. When she saw the rectory, an old Victorian house just next to the church, she asked what their plans for it were. The church said they had none; that they had planned on possibly leasing it out.

That’s when she combined forces with Doug Mowbray and Christophe Casamassima, founders of Poetry in Community, and wrote up a proposal for a “center for the literary arts.” When she talked about the proposal part of LitMore’s story, Fisher shook her head and laughed.

Christophe Casamassima, the co-creator of the Community Poetry Library housed in LitMore, with his bookshelf-building buddies.
Christophe Casamassima, the co-creator of the Community Poetry Library housed in LitMore, with his bookshelf-building buddies.

“Talk about putting the cart before the horse,” Fisher said, “The way it happened, we had the space before we even had an organization.”

Still, they had been thinking of such a thing for a while: somewhere writers could come together; somewhere to affordably host readings and book releases; somewhere that non-profits and writers of all sorts could connect with one another.

There are many ways that LitMore connects writers. LitMore’s most basic function is as a space to write. By paying $10 ($5 if you are a member), a writer can spend the day with other writers, writing and drinking the coffee and tea provided. This might sound strange to readers who aren’t writers. However, sitting in a room full of productive writing can inspire many writers to press through dejection. The spaces—of which there are two larger multi-purpose rooms—can also be rented out for writing workshops or other group events. In the future, Fisher hopes to rent the gallery space below for larger events.

Beyond this, LitMore also has groups and organizations that regularly use their space. Dew More Baltimore, which will be leasing a small office space, organizes poetry education in city schools and also runs the youth poetry slam team, which travels all over the country to compete. Baltimore Writing Hour, which happens every Saturday from 11-4, is an open write-in where anyone can come to spend the day writing.

The last room that Fisher showed me is the Community Poetry Library. Doug Mowbray and Christophe Casamassima started this collection back in 2004. The new library will house a growing collection of over three thousand titles, in all sorts of forms (from books, to broadsides, to hand-made items). Eventually, Fisher explained, they hope to begin a collection of Baltimore focused poets, to create a history of Baltimore’s poetry scene.

A little over a year after their founding, as they settle into their new space, Fisher’s hopes do not seem to have lessened. It’s not surprising that, given that the organization is becoming comfortably established in the literary community, financial stability is the largest immediate goal.

“Our biggest hope is to be solvent,” Fisher said. This means continuing to grow a member base, and spreading the word about the venue as an option for literary and non-literary groups alike. Still, though money is clearly vital to run LitMore, Fisher continued to speak about bigger things: about connections that have yet to occur and about visions for further down the road.

“Our overall vision is still centrality,” she explained. She went on to emphasize the importance of a physical space to make centrality a reality, and how important it is in building a well-connected community. It’s so clear, by the way she gazed around the rooms of deconstructed furniture with so much hope and energy, that she really believes LitMore could become one of the hearts of the Baltimore literary arts community.

By the time I left, I was completely on board. I paid my twenty dollars to become a member, and walked the four blocks home, barely feeling the cold. Interested in becoming a member

or seeing upcoming events? Visit www.litmore.org.

 

All photos courtesy of Julie Fisher

Department of Public Works receives $58k grant

This past December, the Baltimore City Department of Public Works (DPW) announced that it had received a $58,000 grant. The award came from the Watershed Assistance Two-Year Milestone Support grant program, a partnership between the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Chesapeake Bay Trust. The funds from the grant will be used for development of Environmental Site Design practices.

The grant will further the progress that has been made following the 2012 implementation of the Stormwater Fee. Called the “rain tax” by its critics, the fee is paid by both business and homeowners throughout Maryland.

The tax money goes towards better stormwater management, which helps lessen pollutants into the city’s waterways, and in turn, the Chesapeake Bay. In the city, the amount paid is based on the area of impervious surfaces—such as driveways, sidewalks, and rooftops— on each property.

There are always water improvement projects visible throughout the city. Just four blocks from my house in Hampden, for example, Wyman Park has a sign about sewage control. These projects however, with their impressive signs and noisy earth-turning equipment, are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to environmental work. For every one of these projects, there is a massive amount of planning that must take place. The grant will be used for these developments.

The goals sought after using the grant are a part of the MS4 Water Implementation Plan (WIP) which, in Dec. 2013, promised to address at least 20% of the city’s impervious surfaces. As stated in the MS4 WIP, which was released to the public last month, 45% of the city is impervious, and the majority of its storm drain infrastructure is over a century old.

In the case of the Watershed- Assistance grant, the funds are purely for development, so the grant’s effects will not be evident to city residents. Jeffrey Raymond, Division Chief of Communications and Community Affairs at DPW, reiterated the behind-the-scenes nature of the work that will be done with the award.

“The grant is to develop design standards, not [to fund] specific projects,” Raymond explained.

There are a number of Environmental Site Design practices that may be developed using the grant money. Street bio retention, for example, involves using plant matter and soil around storm drains to catch contaminants and sedimentation. Another example is rain garden bumpouts, a curbed area that swells into the road, working to catch rain water and calm traffic.

Though the effects of the grant may only be felt in a few years time, there are always ways to help improve the watershed. Raymond recommends that UB students look into Blue Water Baltimore, which is always accepting volunteers for tree planting, stream monitoring, trash clean up, and many other areas of need.

Visit their website for more information: www. bluewaterbaltimore.org

Welter, now in the hands of graduate students

On Dec. 18, UB’s student-run literary journal, Welter, will throw a release party in the Bogolmolny Room. Every release party is different, year to year, just as the content and the journal’s appearance vary. This is because it’s created not by a returning team of editors, but rather by students who have signed up for the corresponding class.

Students hard at work on creating Welter. Photo courtesy of Meredith Purvis
Students hard at work on creating Welter.
Photo courtesy of Meredith Purvis

“Welter is a teaching tool,” Meredith Purvis, the class’s professor for this term, explained. “A key reason it exists is to give students the opportunity to practice being editors and publishers.”

This fall’s shift is going to feel even bigger because, for the first time in a decade, Welter is back in graduate student hands. Students from the MFA program in Creative Writing and Publishing Arts are now in charge of the journal’s publication.

Welter begins the way many classes do, with questions. The most basic— what exactly is a literary journal?— begins a collaborative process involving multiple genres of writing.

Welter has something of a wild and uncertain past. Its origin is obscure; it isn’t even known for sure when the journal began. The earliest known issue is 1964, which would make 2014 the journal’s fiftieth year. On the 3rd floor of the LAP building is a slew of past issues of Welter in many forms— from rolls of newspaper, to posters, to more traditional books.

As has been the case for the recent issues, Fall 2014 Welter will be a book. Rather than the unusual landscape- style 5.5” x 8” however, Welter is shrinking. Still, it is retaining some of its history.

“The spirit of Welter’s past is still there,” Editor-in-Chief Christopher Warman said. “The book is pocket- sized, so it’s still funky and different.”

The class’ prerogative to change the book’s size is part of the move to the graduate level. Now, students complete the entire process, including design. Just like the journal’s smaller size, the pool of accepted submissions also shrunk; the spring issue had 50 pieces, while fall has only 28.

“We’ve been especially focused on selecting works that fit well together,” Warman said. “We looked for pieces that play off of each other, that are contributions to a larger, but singular humandialogue.”

The creative process, as with any journal, was not without its conflicts. Another thing that sets Welter apart from a traditional journal is that debate—which happens in almost every session—is often encouraged. Naturally, this means conflict, but it also means inclusion. Rather than leaving the elected teams to be insular, decisions like the choice of cover’s color were made by the whole class.

“Nobody,” Warman said, “is just a passenger on the Welter train.”

This participatory quality means Welter is ever changing. The beauty is that when you visit the release party in 2015, the journal will be entirely different from the event this December.

“In some ways the core of Welter’s identity is about being something of a blank canvas,” Purvis said.

Come see this year’s work of art at the Dec. 18 release party.

Soon, Welter will release a brand new, student made website. In the meantime, visit them at www.ubalt. edu/welter.